It’s a bold move to open an Iranian restaurant in Irvine next to Wholesome Choice, the garden of grocery delights whose buffet beats most of the county’s Persian eateries and whose bakery draws half-hour-long lines solely for its sangak flatbread. Hen House Grill knows this. It offers good versions of what’s next door: various stews ranging from a sweet fessenjoon to an earthy eggplant version, a couple of polos (the flavored rice pilafs that make Persian dining so memorable) and soups. But those are afterthoughts, items best bought at Wholesome Choice. They won’t mind.
Hen House Grill replaced a Charo Chicken a couple of months ago and decided to keep the emphasis on the bird. And boy, do they ever with their ground chicken over rice; koobideh skewers; chicken kabob; whole rotisserie-style hens that rotate round and round until their juices seep into every last strip of flesh, and the skin shines with crispiness; wings; Cornish game hens; kotlets, the intriguing Iranian dish that mixes meat with potato, onion and eggs, creating a fried patty worthy of a thousand Rumi babblings; chicken wraps prepared with Hen House’s freshly baked lavash, crisped perfectly as if it were a flour tortilla; and olvieh, a chicken salad spruced up with olive oil and a dash of green peas.
They even went so far as to keep the chicken quesadillas and burritos. I wish I could say they added sumac or saffron to Iranianize it, but they’re as pleasingly pedestrian as Charo’s offerings. In all the dishes, the chicken impresses: succulent, tender, with subtle charring to give a smoky aftertaste. They even offer chicken mortadella, which gives the maligned sausage cut some much-deserved prestige and has a subtle kick.
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This place also sells some items listed on the in-store menu that curiously don’t make it into the takeout edition. Lamb tongue sandwich is so wrong in so many ways, but the velvety texture and buttery flavor of the poor sheep’s organ, slightly grilled and lightly decorated with olive oil, is too delicious to ignore because of mere ethics. Stranger still is the bandari sandwich: beef sausage doused with curry, in a French roll alongside pickles—a Chicago dog via Tehran. I never knew Iranians ate curry, although it makes geographical sense, and the curry they offer is light and milky like the Vietnamese version. But the addition of straightforward dill pickles is bizarre: Persian cuisine has its homegrown pickles—brutally soured torshi—so why the watered-down American take? Whatever—it works. Offer this sandwich at a ballpark and watch Joe Six-Pack transform from a dittohead into an anti-ayatollah freedom fighter.
Hen House Grill, 18040-A Culver Dr., Irvine, (949) 786-2000.
This column appeared in print as "Chicken, Persian Style."